Miss Jane by Brad Watson

Miss Jane Chisolm is born on a farm in Mississippi in the early part of the last century. Before too long it becomes apparent that she has a genital birth defect that she will need to live with, one that will impede the normative life path expected for women in that era, and keep her on the edges of society. Marriage and child-bearing appear to be out of the question, but so does love, romance and intimacy. She finds an ally in the town’s doctor, Dr Thompson, who takes an interest in Jane’s life. The Doc helps her navigate her early years, encourages her to go to school and join in with as much of ‘normal’ life as possible, and he tries for many years to find the expertise to help her. Their relationship is incredibly touching, and sustains the story with its warmth. Jane’s existence is in so many ways defined by the circumstances of her birth, but in the midst of all this, she also finds a way to live a rich life. There is much to consider here in Brad Watson’s portrayal of gender and gendered roles, and the ways in which the perceived ‘limits’ in life are often of our own making.

On occasion, there’s a character in a book that steps outside its pages and stays with you, and Jane is one such luminous figure who has entered my memory for good. In part, this transcendence is helped along by the fact that she is based on the author’s own great-aunt’s real life story. But it’s also due to the tenderness with which Watson has put her life on the page, his clear imagination of the story’s historical rural setting, and his control of the writing craft. This gentle novel really caught me in its grip, and I’m keen to discover more of Watson’s work.

Alison Huber is Readings’ Head Book Buyer.